Marcia Clark’s third Rachel Knight novel KILLER AMBITION is now on sale in bookstores everywhere! Read on for an excerpt in the novel which the Hartford Books Examiner calls “the best entry yet in a young but exceptionally strong series” and which caused Booklist to declare, in a starred review:”Legal thrillers don’t get much better than this.”
Bailey got off the 405 freeway and headed east on Sunset Boulevard. I was about to ask where we were going when she turned onto Bellagio Road—which led to the heart of Bel Air. If I were a billionaire director I’d live there too.
Bel Air is in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, and it’s the highest of the three legs known as the Platinum Triangle—the other two being Beverly Hills and Holmby Hills. The most expensive homes in the world occupy real estate in that wedge of land, and most of those homes are in Bel Air. The biggest and most lavish are usually closest to Sunset Boulevard, but you’d never know that, because massive trees and dense shrubbery hide all but the gated entries, and even those gates are tough to find, hidden as some are by deliberately overgrown leafy climbers.
Which explains why Bailey was frowning and muttering to herself as she scanned the road for house numbers. But when we reached Bel Air Country Club, she made a U-turn and pulled over. “Do me a favor and look for this number. The navigation says we’re there, but I don’t see a damn thing.” She handed me a scrap of paper with an address and headed back down the road. One minute later I told her to stop and peered closely at a set of massive black iron gates that were almost completely obscured by towering elm and cypress trees. The tops of the gates met in an arc, and there in the apex, woven into the iron scrollwork, was the number.
“This is it.” If I hadn’t been parked in front of it and looking hard, I’d never have seen it.
I pointed out a discreet black metal box mounted on an arm in the brick wall and Bailey pushed the button. A voice that sounded like a British butler’s said, “Yes?” Bailey identified us, and he told us to hold out our badges. I couldn’t see any cameras, but I didn’t imagine he’d have asked us to do that just for giggles, so I held them outside the window, not sure where to aim them. After a couple of seconds the gates swung open, and Bailey steered up the brick-lined road.
Los Angeles has some of the most outrageously opulent manses in the country and Bailey and I had seen our share over the years, but nothing compared to this. The road opened to a bricked-in area that was the size of half a football field, in the middle of which was a massive Italian Renaissance–style fountain, complete with cherubs’ and lions’ heads that spewed water. Towering over the grounds was a palatial two-story Tudor-style house all in that same matching brick. It was tastefully covered in ivy that obediently climbed where it best accented the archways and latticed windows and formed a large L around the perimeter of the front area. Judging just by what I could see from the outside, that “house” was at least thirty-five thousand square feet if it was an inch.
Bailey parked and we both stepped out of the car and took in the view.
“Damn,” said Bailey under her breath.
“A quaint little ‘starter.’”
By the time we’d made it up to the arched brick entry, the door was open and a slender man in his fifties, with thinning hair combed neatly back and dressed in a cardigan and dark slacks, beckoned us in.
“Right this way, please.”
We were eventually ushered into a room that was sectioned off by furniture groupings of leather couches, ottomans, and cherry wood tables. Large wall-mounted flat screens hung on opposite walls. The room was big enough that both could be watched at the same time without anyone suffering noise interference. I supposed it was what the realtors called a “great” room. Cozy.
Several people had gathered and the room buzzed with tension, though no one was moving. It was an odd sensation, as though everyone was vibrating in place. A tall wire whip of a man approached me with a smooth, athletic stride. Something about him looked familiar. I studied the brows that arched expressively over green eyes, the full lips, the faint spray of freckles across the bridge of his nose, and the dampish, freshly showered–looking dark red hair that curled down the sides of his neck. When recognition hit, shock made the name spring from my mouth. “Mattie!”
A brief look of annoyance was quickly replaced by a self-deprecating smile; it got me at first, but there was a too-polished feeling about the expression that said he’d probably been working it from his earliest child-star days. “Right.” He held out his hand, “Though I actually go by Ian Powers.”
I shook his hand and collected myself. “Sorry,” I said. “I just wasn’t expecting—”
Ian Powers held up a hand. “Hey, don’t apologize. At my age, I’m only glad that people can still recognize me.”
It was somewhat remarkable. Though he definitely didn’t look it, Ian Powers had to be in his forties. I knew it’d been at least thirty years since he’d starred as the eight-year-old boy in the sitcom Just the Two of Us, about Mattie, a charming, wise-beyond-his-years boy and his single father. I remembered watching the show when I was a kid, though by then, the show had long since been in reruns. It was weird to see the vestiges of that sweet little-boy face in this fully grown, casually elegant man.
“I take it you two are the detectives?”
“Actually no. I’m Rachel Knight, deputy district attorney.”
“Detective Keller.” Bailey put out her hand. “And your connection…?”
“I’m Russell’s manager.”
Ian led us to the left side of the room, where a short man, no more than an inch taller than myself, dressed in a baseball cap, faded jeans, and a forest green Henley, sat on the arm of a plush burgundy couch. “Russell, this is Detective Bailey Keller and, ah—”
“Deputy District Attorney Rachel Knight,” I filled in. Clearly, I was already making quite the impression.
Russell stood and rocked on his toes—I’d bet so he could look down on me. But he’d have needed a step stool to look down on Bailey, all five feet nine inches of her. He took her in with a sidelong glance that avoided his having to look up at her, and didn’t offer his hand to either one of us. He took a deep breath, expelled it through his nose, then started to dive in. “Got the first message about—”
Bailey held up a hand and looked around the room. “Mr. Antonovich, before you get into it, can you tell me who all these people are and why they need to be here?”
With a pained expression he said, “Russell, okay? Call me Russell.” His tone was peremptory, almost impatient, and his voice was high enough that if I hadn’t been looking at him I’d have thought he was a woman. “They all pretty much live here.” He pointed to a willowy blonde who looked to be in her mid-twenties and easily twenty years his junior. “My wife, Dani. That’s her assistant, Angela,” he said, nodding at a trim young girl with a mop of curly brown hair who was pouring bottled water into a glass for the missus. He pointed to a sturdy-looking girl in overalls and a matching baseball cap. “My assistant, Uma.” I noticed she was the only one in the room who was shorter than Russell. I was sure that was no accident. An older woman came in carrying a tray full of plates bearing finger food. Russell followed my gaze. “That’s Vera, the cook.” No last name—unless you counted “the cook.” In fact, none of these people had a last name. Not as far as Russell was concerned anyway.
“And that…?” I asked, pointing to a young man wearing jeans that sagged below sea level sitting on an ottoman at the other end of the room.
“Jeff, my runner. Assistant too, sometimes.”
And then there was the butler who’d answered the door, and all the others it would take to keep this place going. If we kept taking attendance, we wouldn’t get to the case until sometime next week. Bailey had apparently reached the same conclusion.
“I’ll need a list of everyone who’s been in the house today and who’s in the house now,” Bailey said.
“Right, got it, got it.”
“When did you first realize your daughter had been kidnapped?” Bailey asked.
Russell pulled off his baseball cap, which now showed me it was his substitute for hair. The hem of tight straw-colored curls just above his ears was all that remained. He rubbed his head and then his face. With the cap off, I could see the worry and fear etched in his face. Suddenly the celebrity director was just the frantic, distraught father of a child in danger. And in that moment, the picture of my father’s face filled my memory: the panic and confusion in his eyes, turning to frozen shock when, sobbing and hysterical, I told him of the stranger who’d taken Romy while we were playing in the woods near the house. I brought myself back to the present with a stiff jerk. That was Romy and my father. Not Hayley or Russell. This daughter still had a chance of a safe return.
“I got an e-mail with the photograph of Hayley. It came from Hayley’s phone. She was at my place in the hills—”
Russell nodded. “Sent it to my private cell phone. Only my family has it. Said that photo was proof of life and that the demand would come later. Warned me not to call the cops.”
“You still have that message and the photo?”
“Yeah, of course. Got ’em right here.” He pulled his cell phone out of his hip pocket and handed it to Bailey.
Bailey and I read the message on his phone: I’ve got your daughter. She’ll be safe if you do as I tell you. If you call the police she’ll be killed. I’ll be in touch with my demand.
“Couple hours later, I get an e-mail telling me to bring a million in cash to a place in Fryman Canyon.”
“Could you tell where the e-mail came from?”
“The e-mail address was Hayley’s, but—”
But all the kidnapper had to do was get her password to send from her e-mail address.
“Was there a photo of Hayley in the e-mail?” I asked.
“Yeah. A video of Hayley was attached, telling me just to do what he says.” Russell took off his baseball cap and rubbed his head and then his face. His next words tumbled over each other, half regretful, half defensive. “So I did. I know I should’ve called you guys, but I was afraid to take the chance. Thought if I did what they asked, Hayley’d be back and…”
“And I understand you’ve already delivered the ransom?” Bailey asked.
Russell tried to take a deep breath, but it caught in his throat. He dipped his head. “Yeah.” He could barely choke out the word.
“How did you get your hands on a million dollars that fast?” I asked.
At that, Russell looked up, his expression confused. “See that’s the other thing. Only the family knows I keep that much cash around for emergencies. Hayley had to have told them—”
“And she was supposed to be released within an hour after that?” I asked.
“Where exactly?” I asked.
“At the mouth of Fryman Canyon, on the valley side. Told me to go back home and wait for the call.” Russell’s face bunched up and he blew out an exasperated huff. “Look, I already told all this to the captain, so why are you sitting here?”
“We have officers searching Fryman Canyon,” Bailey said. “Unless and until we find someone who can give us more to go on, everything that can be done is being done.”
Bailey turned back to Russell’s cell phone and pulled up the proof-of-life photo. A petite blonde girl with a feminine version of her father’s mouth, dressed in a pink-striped jersey blouse that exposed one fetchingly bare shoulder, stared back at us. Her expression was fixed, serious. I looked across the room at Russell’s wife, Dani. I saw no resemblance. Hayley seemed to be leaning against an iron fence, through which I vaguely made out a hillside thick with greenery.
“Let’s see the ransom demand,” Bailey said.
Russell held out his hand for the cell phone, then scrolled and handed it back to Bailey.
The ransom demand was short and clear:
One million dollars in cash in a duffel bag. Go to Fryman Canyon. Take the small path on the left for fifty yards, then turn right. Walk until you see two trees with white string tied around the trunks. Leave the bag between them. Go home and wait for the call. If you bring in the police, Hayley’s dead.
We watched the video. It was even shorter but no less clear. “Dad, just do what they say and everything will be okay. Please.” It was only a few seconds, and maybe it hit me as hard as it did because I hadn’t expected it, but it was enough to reveal a soulfulness, a pureness of heart in the young girl.
“When was the last time you saw Hayley?” I asked.
“Thursday. Or…was it Friday? Friday, I think. They didn’t have any classes on Friday, so she and Mackenzie wanted to hang out there.” He pointed to the photo of his house in the hills. “I dropped in to check on them, make sure they had food, whatnot.”
“How old is Hayley?” I asked.
That seemed awfully young to be floating around a party house in the Hollywood Hills with a buddy and no supervision.
Russell read my expression. “Her mom doesn’t live far from there.”
Of course. Russell and the mother were divorced. That explained the lack of resemblance to Dani, who I assumed was Wife 3.0.
“So you let Hayley stay there on your custody nights?” I asked.
“We don’t really have custody nights per se, anymore. Hayley pretty much stays where she wants.”
Unfortunately, not tonight.
Marcia Clark is a former Los Angeles deputy district attorney who was the lead prosecutor on the O.J. Simpson murder case. She cowrote the bestselling nonfiction book about the trial, Without a Doubt. Killer Ambition is Clark’s third novel featuring Los Angeles DA Rachel Knight. She’s currently at work on her fourth.